"A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure." – Charlie Chaplin about 'the tramp'
There is a scene in Shree 420 where Raj Kapoor is being asked to play act as a prince by Nadira. After changing into the rented suit, Raju changes his facial expression from a goofy smile to a stern and "classy" expression. As he does this he says "achha, toh chaliye ek nakli chehra utaar kar, doosra nakli chehra pehan leta hoon" (fine, let me swap once false face for another). This scene captures the entire soul of the movie: the tale of an educated pauper who in the search of livelihood moves from donning one mask to another. We rarely see his true face which is that of a man beaten by unemployment and who later flirts with the dark side.
In the first half of the film, Raju walks around with the tramp persona to hide his pain and dejection – "Dil ka dard aur aankhon ke aasun chupane ke liye… yeh bewakoof maskare ka bhes bade kaam ki cheez hai" as he says. This is reminiscent of the famous quote from the creator of the tramp, Charlie Chaplin "I always like walking in the rain, so no one can see me crying." Raju is the tramp, but he is also so much more.
Raju is the stand-in for a newly independent India that is looking at the road ahead with hope and idealism. If the rich capitalist is the bad guy in the film, it is not mere coincidence. It is a by-product of the scepticism of a nation recently freed from 200 years of foreign rule that started with the arrival of a trading company. By the second act he is learning the tricks of the trade, skills of survival, much like the nation which was getting disillusioned with the socialistic principles and invented the 'Jugaad' for getting around the red tape. Blurring the lines of morality for a fleeting prosperity, Raju becomes one of the rich folks he detests.
Passing judgement on the rich is easier to do on an envious heart and empty stomach. The true test of the mettle of a man comes when he is at the crossroads of principled poverty or compromising comfort. At this juncture Raju choses the shortcut to success manifested through seducing Nadira even as his heart is still with the principled teacher Nargis. Like the infant India, Raju falters, stumbles, goes through a heartbreak before fulfilling his tryst with destiny.
As the writer and director of the film, Raj Kapoor creates the perfect character for himself – the right mix of innocence and childlike wonder as Raju and the dapper looks sans melodrama for the transformation to Raj. In movies like Jagte Raho or Mera Naam Joker, Raj Kapoor has put in better performances as an actor but in Shree 420 it all comes together in the right proportions for the first time– the world of Shree 420, the character arc of Raju, the story being a zeitgeist of the times. Raju from Shree 420 is an iconic protagonist in Hindi film history who was rehashed in multiple films after that, including by Raj Kapoor himself in subsequent films like Anari, and by Shah Rukh Khan in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. Shah Rukh Khan's Raju is a post-liberalisation version of the protagonist from Shree 420 who lived in Nehruvian times. This character represents the constant tussle between the good and evil that resides inside every human being and a reminder to keep the goodness of the heart intact.